Northwest Austin restaurants react to new regulations that deter tossing food waste

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All food-permitted restaurants and businesses in the city of Austin are no longer able to throw out food scraps and soiled paper under regulations that took effect Oct. 1.

These new organics diversion regulations under the city’s Universal Recycling Ordinance are aimed at helping the city of Austin achieve its goal to divert 90 percent of material from area landfills by 2040.

“We have these materials that we can put in a hole somewhere, or we can actually reuse and repurpose,” said Memi Cárdenas, senior public information specialist with Austin Resource Recovery, which manages collection of trash, recycling, yard trimmings and composting material for about 200,000 residential customers.

Some Northwest Austin restaurant owners say they are excited to do their part to help the city achieve this goal.

“The bottom line is restaurants make money, and if this is what restaurants have to spend to responsibly take care of our waste then this becomes another cost of doing business,” said Jennifer McNevin, co-owner of Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant.

Diverting materials

Austin City Council adopted its Universal Recycling Ordinance, or URO, in 2010 to ensure that multifamily and commercial properties had access to recycling services, said Jason McCombs, senior planner with Austin Resource Recovery. In 2013, council amended that ordinance to include organics diversion for all food-permitted businesses, such as restaurants, grocery stores, day cares and food trucks.

Businesses and restaurants have several ways they can divert food, scraps and soiled paper products. The first is to donate leftovers to food pantries, McCombs said.

Mike Zayour, who owns PitaLicious on Parmer Lane, has opted for this approach and is able to feed about 10 people daily.

“From the get-go we didn’t like throwing away food,” he said, adding his business has been donating food since he started it in 2009.

Although donating prepared food could help the city’s food-insecure population—those who do not have reliable access to food—dealing with prepared food from restaurants could create other challenges, said Tyler Markham, agency retail specialist for the Central Texas Food Bank.

“The hard part is if we’re going to redistribute it to other organizations, we have to make sure that it’s packaged and labeled accordingly,” he said. “So it’s just challenging. It’s easier for us to go directly to one of our partners.”

Businesses can also donate food scraps to area farms or choose to compost food waste and paper products. McCombs said also he encourages business owners to connect with the business outreach team to come up with other solutions.

“Sometimes the more convenient method might be just putting compost out back, and there might be just a direct cost there,” he said. “… You have the option to look for other ways to maybe find a more cost-effective solution.”

Impact on businesses

At Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant, which has locations on Great Hills Trail and Congress Avenue, the owners started composting last year, McNevin said.

“I always wanted to do it, but I think realizing this was going to be coming down the pike gave me an extra nudge to get it done,” she said.

At the Great Hills location, she said the business added composting service through their private hauler that collects trash and recycling. At the downtown location, McNevin said the owners signed up for composting through GrubTubs, which initially provided them with 72 6-gallon tubs for $200 per month.

“My first month I’ve gone through over 200 tubs we’ve filled up,” she said. “That’s how much waste a restaurant that makes everything from scratch produces.”

Zayour said for PitaLicious the impact of the new regulations was not a challenge but acknowledged that restaurants starting from scratch may have a harder time.

“It definitely was a little tougher in the beginning, but people will get used to it,” he said.

Rolling out more services

The city of Austin is also in the midst of rolling out its new residential curbside composting program, which is currently available to about 90,000 Austin Resource Recovery customers and will be available to all customers by 2020, Cárdenas said.

The city provides a green cart for residents to put food waste, food-soiled products and yard trimmings in. The material is carted away and processed by Organics by Gosh, which composts the material and sells it locally.

“A lot of people are turned off by the icky factor, the smell. I have three kids, and my gag reflex is very under control, but rotten food I cannot do. But I don’t have a problem with the composting,” Cárdenas said of her personal experience with composting.

Additional reporting by Emma Freer

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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